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October 26, 2006
After the Phone Call
What Happened to George Smoot After the Nobel Committee Called

Just about every scientist fantasizes about receiving that phone call from Sweden and winning a Nobel Prize, just as probably every actor or actress dreams of winning an Oscar. But what happens after the phone call? Based on Berkeley Lab astrophysicist George Smoot's experience, what immediately happens are more phone calls. A lot more phone calls.

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George Smoot and the COBE map that first revealed minute differences in the temperature of the cosmic microwave background, anisotropies which gave rise to the large-scale structure of the universe today.

The call came in at around 2:45 a.m. on Tuesday, October 3, 2006. A man with a polite voice and a Swedish accent informed George Smoot that he had won the Nobel Prize in Physics, along with NASA scientist John Mather, for their 1992 results from NASA's Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE) satellite. COBE provided the first substantial experimental evidence for the Big Bang theory of cosmology.

The first question from Smoot, who had a new cell phone and an unlisted number, was: "How did you get my phone number?"

Despite two subsequent callers, including a friend, Smoot suspected a prank — until he actually confirmed the news on the Nobel Prize website at around 3:00 a.m. He promptly e-mailed his family and called this writer.

And then the fun began.

Media onslaught

Because of international time differences, reporters from the British and European media are well into their day when the Nobel announcement goes online, and they are anxious to meet deadlines. Reporters with deadlines are a relentless lot, like computerized solicitors or erroneous fax machines.

From about 3:30 a.m. on, the phones of both Smoot and this writer (whose Berkeley Lab number was listed) did not stop ringing. The Lab scheduled a formal press conference for 10:00 a.m., which was in and of itself a logistical challenge, but while 10:00 a.m. was early enough for most Bay Area reporters, TV camera crews showed up as early as 4:30, hoping to get tape for their 5:00 a.m. newscasts.

Smoot intended to be at the Lab by 7:00 a.m., but the phone calls kept him so tied up he was lucky to make it in shortly before the press conference. Before he faced the media, Smoot got words of advice from Berkeley Lab's director Steve Chu, who won the 1997 Nobel Prize in Physics for his development of optical traps for single atoms.

The press conference was held in an auditorium packed with television camera crews, photographers, reporters and well-wishers from the Lab and University, including Director Chu and the Chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley, Robert Birgeneau. The Chancellor was effusive in his praise for Smoot: "The entire campus community is enormously proud of George's achievement and joins me in sending him hearty congratulations."

  A typical U.
Spacer image Surrounded by reporters and photographers, George Smoot (the one with the tie) makes his way to the morning press conference. Right of Smoot is the accompanying story's "this writer," Lynn Yarris.

In short order, the Chancellor extended to Smoot a number of invitations, mostly for fund-raising events. But he also invited Smoot to toss the coin in the Cal-Oregon football game the following Saturday and offered him seats in the Chancellor's box for the game, which was held on Homecoming Day.

(At the game, Smoot would take on the job of "mike-man," leading the fans in a series of cheers. Smoot himself was on the receiving end of cheers; when he took the field Cal fans began chanting "Nobel Prize! Nobel Prize! Nobel Prize!" Perhaps inspired by Smoot's cheerleading, the Golden Bears would go on to conquer the Ducks by a score of 45-24.)

In his own remarks at the press conference, before Smoot took questions from reporters he expressed his gratitude to the Laboratory and to the University of California for "providing the scientific freedom and culture of research" that make long-term experimental efforts like his possible.

"It's no wonder the Free Speech Movement started at Berkeley," he said. "For us it was the Free Science movement: pick out the best science you can do and do it. That was so liberating, the thing that really made it so that I could think about science that was out of the ordinary and into a new field."

Smoot also thanked the U.S. Department of Energy and NASA for their financial support of his work, and to the taxpayers in general. "You guys paid for this," he said, gesturing to the audience. "I figured it out once, and it was like $3 for every person in the country."

Team effort

Throughout the first hours after the phone call from Sweden, Smoot repeatedly stated that this Nobel Prize was for a team effort, involving a large number of scientists and engineers and support staff. Despite the crush of calls from the media and well-wishers, he took the time early that Tuesday morning to send an e-mail message to all the members of the COBE project. The message read in part: "This award is shared by the two team leaders John Mather and George Smoot but is representative of the work done by all on the project and recognizes the importance of COBE as a keystone mission from cosmology."

In his book, Wrinkles in Time, first published in 1993, Smoot insisted — over the publisher's objections — on including an appendix in which he listed more than 1,500 contributors to the research. The list included Giovanni De Amici, Jon Aymon, Charles Lineweaver, and Luis Tenorio, coauthors on the Astrophysical Journal paper of 1992 that first reported the COBE experimental results.

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Smoot, center, joins UC Berkeley's Golden Bears for the opening of the Homecoming Game against the University of Oregon's Ducks. Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau is at far right.

During the day, in the course of dozens of interviews and conversations, Smoot acknowledged many other scientists with whom he collaborated, such as physicists Rich Muller and Paul Richards (who was John Mather's thesis advisor), and those who helped in the never-ending battles for funding, such as Robert Birge and Pier Oddone, previous directors of Berkeley Lab's Physics Division, and former Berkeley Lab directors Andy Sessler, Dave Shirley, and Chuck Shank. He also gave high praise to the work of Saul Perlmutter and other members of the Supernova Cosmology Project headquartered at Berkeley Lab, and he paid special homage to his mentor, the late Nobel Laureate Luis Alvarez.
Speaking of Wrinkles in Time, which Smoot co-authored with San Francisco Chronicle science writer Keay Davidson: at 6:30 a.m. that Tuesday morning the book ranked number 604,951 in sales on the website. By 5:30 p.m. the same day Wrinkles in Time had climbed more than half a million slots and was ranked at 14,249.

Of course there were parties. At noon that day there was a reception for Smoot, hosted by his immediate colleagues in the Physics Division and INPA, the Institute for Nuclear and Particle Astrophysics. In the cafeteria at 3:00 p.m., Director Chu and the Lab hosted a champagne celebration featuring surprise appearances by both Shank and Oddone, who had been Berkeley Lab's director and deputy director respectively when the COBE results were first announced. Director Chu made a toast and noted that even with the addition of Smoot, there's still space on the Lab's Nobel Laureate wall for a few more prize-winners. Following the Berkeley Lab reception, Smoot was whisked down to campus for a UC Berkeley reception. He did not make it back home until around 7:30 p.m., which presented a problem.

Midterm all-nighter

Throughout the frenzy following the Tuesday morning call, Smoot had expressed on several occasions his concern about a midterm exam he'd scheduled for his freshman physics class on Wednesday, which he'd not yet fully prepared. Education and his teaching duties have long been top priorities for Smoot.

Two years ago he began a partnership with Berkeley Lab physicist Michael Barnett and the Particle Data Group, who had led the development of the award-winning Particle Adventure educational website, to create the Universe Adventure, a website designed to teach current theories and supporting evidence for the history, structure and fate of the universe. With help from Rollie Otto of Berkeley Lab's Center for Science and Engineering Education, and with funding from the Bechtel Corporation, the website is now up and running.

Smoot is also in discussion with UC Berkeley about donating his Nobel Prize money to the campus to provide fellowships for postdocs and grad students, pending matching funding donations. His desire is "to encourage and help outstanding young people to enter scientific research."

  A typical U.
Spacer image Smoot was up more than 24 hours after getting the 2:45 a.m. call from Sweden, determined to finish next day's midterm exam for his freshman physics class.

But what came first on Tuesday the 3rd was preparing the midterm exam on thermal physics for 174 students. The night after the phone call that woke him up before 3 a.m., Smoot stayed up until 3 a.m. Wednesday to finish preparing his exam. (Tuesday he'd posited that in winning the Nobel Prize, "Perhaps now my students will pay more attention to me." Perhaps they do: their overall scores on the midterm were much better than for the previous exam.)

In the opening of Wrinkles in Time, Smoot wrote: "There is something about looking at the night sky that makes a person wonder." Smoot looked at the night sky, wondered, and then devoted his life to finding answers. The reward was a phone call from a polite Swedish man.

After the phone call, he says he wants to continue to teach and do research, but now, with his new celebrity, he adds: "I want to be an ambassador for science and help pave the way for the next generation of scientists."

All of this should be possible, thanks to that phone call.

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